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Writing About Yourself in Fiction: Right or Wrong?

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s outstanding 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. Some reviewers speculated the novel was autobiographical, as it focused on Eugenides’s hometown of Detroit and his Greek heritage, but it was not. ”I wanted to write about hermaphroditism,” Eugenides said in an interview with The New York Times. ”But hermaphroditism led to classicism, classicism led to Hellenism, Hellenism to my Uncle Pete. I didn’t set out to write a Greek-American novel. I used the history because it served my story.”

Eugenides is not alone. Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, featured parallels with his life growing up in Chicago. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle are other examples, though they are closer to memoir. Ernest Hemingway’s fiction often alluded to his life experiences.

Writers often draw on their own life experiences in their stories. There is a temptation among novice writers to base their first novel entirely on their own lives. There’s nothing wrong with using your own experiences as a springboard or gleaning traits from real-life characters to breathe life into your fictional characters.

Personally, I feel uncomfortable writing about my own life. First, it’s just not that interesting. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a wonderful life (channeling George Bailey), rich in meaningful experiences, friendships, and joys. My life is fine. It’s just not the stuff of fiction. Second, I believe it’s an invasion of my family and friends’ privacy to use them in a work of fiction.

Clearly, though, writers create their fictional worlds through the prism of their experiences. Write what you know. We’ve all heard that one before. The truth is we all know a lot more than we think we do. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be in a high-speed chase, but I’ve been a passenger in a car going too fast for comfort. I don’t know what it’s like to undergo brain surgery, but I do know what it’s like to go under the knife.

My first novel, Small Change, was not based in any way on my life. None of the things that happened to the main character, John Sykowski, ever happened to me. However, reflecting on the book, I realized the main character embodied many of my adolescent hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. No, John was not me. I was probably a mix of John and his carefree younger brother, Paul. At some level, writers infuse their characters with their own world view and perspective.

Writing a fictional story based on your life doesn’t strike me as a good idea, unless you are willing to change the facts to protect your family and friends. Here are a few tips for how you can draw on your rich life’s experiences in fiction:

  • Take the most interesting person you know (okay, not the Dos Equis guy) and redraw him in a way that is unrecognizable. If the person is a woman, write a male character with the same traits. If the person is a doctor, make him a lawyer. You get the idea.
  • Rewrite a dramatic event in your life by having it happen in a different way. Let’s say you were robbed at gunpoint and feared for your life. How about changing it up so your character is beaten senseless. If you were in a car accident, turn it into a boating accident.
  • If you were mistreated or had your heart broken in a relationship, change the gender of the abuser and alter the facts and events.

You get the picture. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all drink from the wellspring of our own experiences for inspiration and story ideas. That’s fine, as long you don’t compose a note-for-note duplication of your life. After all, as my character said in Small Change, a cover version of a song is never as good as the original.

How much of your own experiences do you use in your fiction writing?

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Book Review: “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides

In the beginning section of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, The Marriage Plot, a college professor states that the novel reached its apogee in the 19th century with the marriage plot and never recovered once the movement toward sexual equality begun. As far as the professor was concerned, “marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.”

The Marriage Plot is very much concerned with the state of the novel, but it also works as a coming-of-age story as three Ivy Leaguers prepare to leave the safety of the college campus for the real world. The story begins on graduation day in 1982 at Brown University, but there is none of the joy and anticipation associated with this occasion.

The story centers on three main characters who are about to graduate. Madeleine Hanna is the well-heeled, attractive daughter of a college president. Maddy chooses English as her major “for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant, charismatic and troubled student from the Northwest, becomes Maddy’s lover during their senior year. Mitchell Grammaticus is an earnest religious studies major from Detroit and Maddy’s trusted friend. Mitchell carries around an intense crush on Maddy, vowing to someday marry her.

This love triangle sets the stage for a story that is as much about the state of the novel as it is about the journey to adulthood.

As a student, Maddy becomes fascinated by the marriage plot, which reached its peak in literature during the 19th Century. After a difficult day in her semiotics class, Maddy retreats to the comfort of The House of Mirth, by Daniel Deronda. She reflects, “How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.” Her relationship with Bankhead causes Maddy to leave her comfort zone.

After breaking up with Leonard earlier in the spring, Maddy discovers on Graduation Day that he has been admitted to the psychiatric ward of a hospital after a breakdown. She skips her graduation ceremony and rushes to his side. Madeleine then follows Leonard to Cape Cod, where he has landed a science fellowship in a prestigious lab. As Maddy learns of the depths of Leonard’s bipolar diagnosis, she stays by his side to support him. Meanwhile, Mitchell is off to India to explore religion and mysticism and even serves a stint working for Mother Theresa’s charity.

Eugenides alternates between the points-of-view of Maddy, Leonard and Mitchell, devoting the most time to Maddy’s perspective. Yet, for me, Maddy is the character I felt I knew the least. His portrayal of Leonard is brilliant as he brings the reader into his head and the reader feels the pain of a person suffering from bipolar disorder. Mitchell feels like the author’s alter ego, but the reader has a clear sense of his longings and confusion.

The novel gets bogged down in several places. Unless the reader studied literature, the references to Barthe and Derrida in the opening section will leave you scurrying to Wikipedia. The section that introduces Leonard’s point-of-view begins with 16 pages of his back story (pages 231 to 247). Despite these side trips, the intertwined stories of the three characters’ journeys move the story forward.

This book is about three things: the novel’s place in society, the difficult transition from college to the real world, and the complexities of human relationships. The three Ivy Leaguers, for all their academic brilliance, are ill-equipped for the harsh world of the early 1980s. They also discover that the things they desire may not be what they really want or need.

What I especially liked about this book is the ending. It is said that good endings are both unexpected and inevitable. Eugenides has managed to succeed on both counts.

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